Next month, I will be speaking about consumer bankruptcy issues at a continuing legal education program in the Atlanta area. While most of my presentation will focus on the nuts and bolts of the Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 process, I do intend to discuss the practical elements of work as a bankruptcy lawyer.
Most bankruptcy lawyers I know find their work to be rewarding and satisfying. Very few areas of the law offer an attorney the opportunity to literally change a client’s life overnight. Bankruptcy is one of those areas. Clients walk into appointments on the edge of dispair, facing wage garnishment, judgments, foreclosures, repossessions and other unpleasant prospects.
Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 can often offer those clients a way out of what seems to be an impossible situation. While I make it clear that bankruptcy is not a free lunch and should be considered as a last resort, it does serve as the most powerful tool available to solve many financial problems and put a bankruptcy filer on the road to financial recovery and emotional peace of mind.
As rewarding as bankruptcy practice can be, it can also be draining. Every day, bankruptcy lawyers meet with people in crisis and it can be difficult to not take a personal interest and concern in our clients’ problems.
Just like our clients who find themselves on an emotional roller coaster when trying to decide what to do about all that debt, bankruptcy lawyers also need to prepare for the highs and lows that are part of the bankruptcy process.
What follows is a very insightful essay by a colleague of mine, attorney Chris Layton from Charlotte, North Carolina. Chris’ observations are mainly directed at bankruptcy lawyers, but I think his suggestions would benefit everyone. With is permission, I am posting Chris’ article for the benefit of the lawyers who will be attending my CLE presentation in December, but the material deserves a wider audience so I am publishing it here.
If you are a bankruptcy lawyer, Chris’ suggestions about how to constructively deal with your clients’ financial problems day to day should be very useful. If you are a bankruptcy debtor, you may also find benefit from some of the relaxation techniques discussed herein.
Bankruptcy Lawyers Have Feelings, Too
by Christopher Layton
Bankruptcy attorneys are familiar with emotional exchanges. We encounter them during initial phone calls with potential clients, and outside a 341 meeting where a client might hug us with gratitude, thanks and relief. We expect emotional clients, and we get them. What we often don’t expect are our own emotions.
The practice of law is full of high stakes. Managing client expectations and workload is never-ending. When a filing is missed or a mistake is made, you naturally experience fear and frustration. If you are unsure of the consequences, that fear may turn to dread born out of uncertainty.
Managing our emotions is one of the key aspects of creating a healthy work environment and continuing to practice law in a meaningful and productive way. Here are a few tips for recognizing and fixing emotional derailment in your practice on a daily basis.
Signs your emotions are interfering or becoming unproductive:
- You feel different physically—Heart rate is up, body temp is rising, you’re tapping your foot incessantly, etc.
- You are mentally distracted—No one task can hold your attention for the required time. Conversations with co-workers and clients are becoming increasingly difficult to process and conduct.
- You’re responding to people differently—Your tone of voice is harsh, your comments and responses are laced with hints of impatience and blame.
- Your internal dialogue has become self-oriented—You’re asking yourself questions like “How did this happen?” or “Why does this keep happening to me?” or “What is his/her problem now?”
What to do:
When we are emotionally unproductive, we pay a price in relationships with co-workers and clients. These are the people whose support and cooperation we need in order to be successful. If you recognize some of the warning signs above, use these tools to re-gain emotional balance, assess the situation, and make a decision that helps to move things forward.
Breathe—It sounds so simple. The fact is deep, slow, quiet, regular breathing sends the message to the brain that there is no danger. You’ll calm the fight or flight mechanism and re-invoke the rational brain. You can do this at any time. It is simply a choice you have to consciously make.
Switch from “Self-focus” to “Other-person-focus” – Empathy is incongruent with anger and frustration, and represents a way out of emotional derailment. Switch from questions of blame to different internal questions, like “What must he/she be feeling right now?” or “Why would a rational, reasonable person be acting the way he/she is acting?” You’ll get surprising answers. You may then choose to move that internal dialogue into conversation with a co-worker or client—a choice which will reflect curiosity about what is happening for them. They will feel cared for, and you’ll get information that will help you understand and solve the problem.
Do some needs mapping—Take out a sheet of paper. Make columns for each individual involved in the situation, including yourself. Now step inside their shoes the best you can and write out a list of their needs. Include substantive needs like money, time, guarantees, and documents. Don’t forget to include non-substantive needs like certainty, stability, and appreciation. This will help to ensure you have a well-rounded understanding of what is at stake for everyone. It also re-humanizes others and inspires you to make smart choices when communicating with them. I love this tool because you are preparing to problem-solve while regaining your emotional composure.
Emotional balance is important from a health perspective, without a doubt. But for the practicing attorney, it’s important to recognize that others are attracted to working with you when you demonstrate the ability to process information and respond to it in a productive way. By doing so, you are helping them while demonstrating qualities of leadership. Bankruptcy clients in particular often require leadership, and they are eternally thankful for it. When we are able to catch ourselves in the moment and implement a quick tool for regaining emotional balance, the rewards are both personal and professional.
This week, commit to starting your day off with 5 minutes of uninterrupted breathing. Slow, deep breaths that are regular and quiet. Use the Simply Being phone app if you need help. If you notice a difference in your ability to handle your workload as a result, consider the other-person-focus tip and the needs mapping tip—they are equally powerful tools in building and repairing relationships while solving problems.
Christopher Layton is a Charlotte, NC bankruptcy lawyer assisting individuals in the filing of Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. The Layton Law Firm is located in the SouthPark area of Charlotte, at 2701 Coltsgate Road, Suite 210, Charlotte, NC 28211. The firm can be reached at 704-749-7747. Connect with Chris through his Google+ profile. Chris is a graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park, and received his JD from the Wake Forest School of Law in 2000. The law firm’s primary goal is to assist people in achieving freedom from financial burdens by exercising their consumer rights and the protections offered through bankruptcy.